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State v. Tapia

Supreme Court of New Mexico

February 22, 2018

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Petitioner,
EDWARD JAMES TAPIA, SR., Defendant-Respondent.

         ORIGINAL PROCEEDING ON CERTIORARI William C. Birdsall, District Judge

          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Kenneth H. Stalter, Assistant Attorney General Santa Fe, NM for Petitioner

          Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender Mary Barket, Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Respondent



         {¶1} In this case we address an issue of first impression: whether evidence of non- violent crimes committed in the presence of a police officer after an unconstitutional traffic stop must be suppressed under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Fourth Amendment) and Article II, Section 10 of the New Mexico Constitution (Article II, Section 10). Defendant Edward Tapia, Sr. entered a conditional plea of guilty to one count of forgery, for signing his brother's name to a traffic citation charging failure to wear a seat belt in a motor vehicle, and reserved his right to appeal. See State v. Tapia, 2015-NMCA-055, ¶¶ 1, 5, 348 P.3d 1050. He appealed to the Court of Appeals which reversed his conviction. Id. ¶ 1. The State petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which we granted. See Rule 12-502 NMRA.

         I. Facts and Procedure

         {¶2} Because Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea, there was no trial.

         Therefore, the facts are taken from the suppression hearing, the findings of fact and conclusions of law entered by the district court, and the plea hearing. On August 8, 2012, Defendant and his companions were traveling westbound on U.S. Highway 64 toward Farmington, in San Juan County. Defendant was a passenger in the back seat of the car. New Mexico State Police Officer Tayna Benally stopped the car because it was going forty miles per hour in a fifty-five-mile-per-hour zone and because she was unable to read the license plate. After contacting the driver, Benally noticed Defendant was not wearing a seat belt. When asked about this, Defendant told Benally he was wearing a lap belt. Benally asked him to lift his shirt so she could verify he was wearing a lap belt. Defendant complied and lifted his shirt, and Benally observed he was not wearing a lap belt. At this point, Benally asked Defendant for his driver's license. Defendant said he didn't have any identification. Benally then asked Defendant to write down his name, date of birth, and social security number. He wrote down "Robert Tapia DOB 03/22/1968" and said he did not know his social security number.

         {¶3} Benally contacted San Juan County Dispatch and asked for a description of Robert Tapia. The description given was inconsistent with Benally's observations of Defendant's appearance. Despite the inconsistencies, Benally issued a "no seat belt" citation for Robert Tapia, and Defendant signed the citation as Robert Tapia.

         {¶4} While Benally was dealing with Defendant, another officer at the scene spoke with a second male passenger. The second passenger informed the second officer that Defendant's real name was Edward Tapia. The second officer had Defendant exit the car and confirm his name. Defendant said his name was Robert Tapia but then restated his birth date as March 22, 1974. The second officer informed Benally of what the second passenger had told him, and Benally then arrested Defendant for concealing identity. Later, at the jail, Defendant's real identity was confirmed as Edward Tapia. His birth date and social security number were also confirmed, and Benally discovered there was an outstanding warrant for Defendant's arrest for failing to appear at the San Juan Magistrate Court in Aztec, New Mexico.

         {¶5} Defendant was charged with forgery, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 30-16-10(A) (2006); concealing identity, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 30-22-3 (1963); and seat belt violation, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 66-7-372(A) (2001).

         {¶6} Defendant filed in the Eleventh Judicial District Court a motion to suppress all evidence obtained by Benally, challenging the constitutionality of the traffic stop. The district court heard the motion to suppress, held that the traffic stop was unlawful because the driver had made no moving violations and the license plate was concededly visible to the officer, and suppressed the evidence of the seat belt violation. However, the evidence of concealing identity and forgery was not suppressed. The district court found that those crimes "had not yet been committed at the time of the stop, " that "[e]vidence of those crimes did not exist at the time of the stop, " and concluded that "an unlawful stop does not justify the commission of new crimes."

         {¶7} Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to the forgery charge, admitted to two prior offenses for habitual sentencing purposes, and reserved the right to appeal the suppression issue as to both forgery and concealing identity. The district court accepted the plea and sentenced Defendant to eighteen months in the Department of Corrections, with all but forty-five days of the sentence suspended in favor of unsupervised probation. Pursuant to the plea, the Defendant appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeals.

         {¶8} The Court of Appeals reversed the ruling of the district court and held that "the commission of a non-violent, identity-related offense in response to unconstitutional police conduct does not automatically purge the taint of the unlawful police conduct under federal law." Tapia, 2015-NMCA-055, ¶ 17. The Court of Appeals then engaged in an attenuation analysis and held that "the discovery of the evidence of concealing identity and forgery was not sufficiently removed from the taint of the illegal stop to justify admitting the evidence notwithstanding the exclusionary rule." Id. ¶ 19. Concluding that the crimes of concealing identity and forgery should have been suppressed under the Fourth Amendment, the Court of Appeals did not reach defendant's state constitutional claim. Id. ¶ 20.

         {¶9} The State petitioned for certiorari to review the issue of whether a new crime exception to the exclusionary rule, which this court has previously recognized for violent crimes, also applies to non-violent, identity-related crimes. See N.M. Const. art. VI, § 3; NMSA 1978, § 34-5-14 (1972); Rule 12-502. We granted certiorari under Rule 12-502(C)(2)(d)(iii) as this case presents a significant constitutional question.

         II. Standard of Review

         {¶10} "In reviewing a trial court's denial of a motion to suppress, we observe the distinction between factual determinations which are subject to a substantial evidence standard of review and application of law to the facts[, ] which is subject to de novo review." State v. Nieto, 2000-NMSC-031, ¶ 19, 129 N.M. 688, 12 P.3d 442 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The district court made findings of facts and conclusions of law. The parties do not dispute the pertinent facts, only the application of law to those facts; therefore, our review is de novo. Id. ¶ 19; see State v. Pierce, 2003-NMCA-117, ¶¶ 1, 10, 134 N.M. 388, 77 P.3d 292 (stating that when the facts are not in dispute on a motion to suppress, we determine whether the law was correctly applied to those facts).

         III. Discussion

         {¶11} The State argues that the new crime exception to the exclusionary rule does not make a categorical distinction between violent and non-violent crimes and that the potential deterrence of unlawful searches and seizure by the State is outweighed by the cost of excluding evidence of identity crimes. Defendant asks this Court to affirm the Court of Appeals ruling that the crimes of concealing identity and forgery should have been suppressed under the Fourth Amendment and asks alternatively for suppression under Article II, Section 10.

         {¶12} Under the interstitial approach adopted in State v. Gomez, 1997-NMSC-006, ¶ 21, 122 N.M. 777, 932 P.2d 1, we ask "first whether the right being asserted is protected under the federal constitution. If it is, then the state constitutional claim is not reached." Id. ¶ 19. If it is not, we examine the state constitutional claim. Id. However, "we may diverge from federal precedent where the federal analysis is flawed, where there are structural differences between the state and federal governments, or because of distinctive New Mexico characteristics." State v. Garcia, 2009-NMSC-046, ¶ 27, 147 N.M. 134, 217 P.3d 1032 (citing Gomez, 1997-NMSC-006, ¶ 19).

         A.Attenuation Doctrine and the New Crime ...

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